By Uma Ramesh
When I learned that Constance Wu had received a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Rachel Chu, Crazy Rich Asians’ female protagonist, I was thrilled. I’m usually far too self-absorbed to feel overwhelming joy for someone else, much less a person I don’t know; unfortunately for my hopes of personal growth, this wasn’t an exception. Wu is talented and fully deserving of this, but what truly excited me was seeing the Hollywood Foreign Press Association signal that characters like Rachel Chu are important. Rachel is a compelling, lovable heroine who displays many traits typically associated with Asian-Americans. In this context, every recognition that Wu earns affirms something I still struggle to believe: I can take pride in my Asian-American identity.
Soon after I started high school, I learned that displaying any traits associated with Asians meant being reduced to a cartoon. I was a conspicuous try-hard in class, taking detailed notes and asking lots of questions. This led multiple teachers and friends to question whether I had a life outside of school; one dismissed my brain as a “machine that memorizes facts.” I imagine these individuals already had a distorted image of Asians as over-competitive robots obsessed with academics. I was pigeon-holed for partially matching the profile, with few chances to salvage my reputation. These experiences led me to associate all ‘typically Asian’ traits with ridicule. I reacted by running from my Asian identity as far and as fast as I could.
Now a college student, I navigate spaces similar to those occupied by Rachel, an economics professor at NYU. Since I identified with her, I initially assumed that she would use the same tricks I’ve employed to duck Asian stereotypes: a folksy speaking style, a tone of casual interest in academics, and a warm, agreeable manner that sends out “not a machine” vibes.
We meet Rachel as she’s teaching, playing poker with a T.A. in front of her class. She has a weak hand and bluffs her way to victory, the T.A. deciding to fold after she goes all in. Rachel scoffs and reveals her cards, grinning widely. She crows: “How did I beat T.A. Curtis so very, very badly?” “Well,”Rachel playfully responds to herself. “I know for a fact that Curtis is cheap. So he’s not playing using logic or math, but using his psychology.” She continues, words coming out faster as she gains momentum. “Our brains so hate the idea of losing something that’s valuable to us that we abandon all rational thought, and we make some really poor decisions.” With that, Rachel finishes her lecture and goes to meet her sweet, adoring boyfriend for a coffee date.
These first minutes of the film shattered my expectations about the happily-ever-after endings that are possible for Asian-Americans. Rachel is unafraid to display traits that are associated with Asians. She refuses to hide her intelligence, breezing through complex ideas about psychology and expecting her students to keep up. She is visibly passionate about her field and refuses to dull her competitive fire. Rachel doesn’t make any effort to avoid stereotypes, and she has found someone who loves her exactly as she is.
Even more, Rachel’s ‘typically Asian’ traits don’t make her any less of a compelling character. As I watched Crazy Rich Asians, I fell in love with her too. When a friend gives her a makeover, Rachel plays dress-up with contagious enthusiasm, twirling and shimmying in the gowns she tries on. Alone at a wedding, Rachel boldly approaches a Malay royal and ends up charming her, finding common ground in their support of women’s empowerment. After learning a painful secret about her mom, Rachel refuses to judge her, instead simply asking for the truth.
In sum, Rachel’s character gives me hope. She has helped me envision a world in which I could be myself and be loved. She reminds me that, regardless of how others react to me, my Asian-American identity doesn’t make me ridiculous. Asian-Americans are diverse, and we don’t need to have ‘typically Asian’ traits to stay true to our identity. Still, I’m grateful that I no longer feel ashamed of mine.